Tory MPs join campaign to ease abortion laws in Northern Ireland

A woman calling for abortion reform in Northern Ireland (Niall Carson/PA) Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Three Conservative MPs who back abortion reform in Northern Ireland will be in Belfast later to hear experiences of women impacted by the region’s restrictive laws.

During a day of meetings, Anna Soubry, Huw Merriman and Nicky Morgan will also speak with midwives, doctors, politicians and lawyers challenging the current regime in the courts.

The visit comes on the same day that senior figures in Sinn Fein, the SDLP, the Ulster Unionists and the Alliance Party issued a joint statement urging reform.

Abortions in Northern Ireland are illegal in all but exceptional medical and mental health circumstances.

The Government has resisted calls to step in to legislate for reform in the wake of a recent Supreme Court judgment that found the current legal framework incompatible with human rights laws.

In June, a majority of Supreme Court judges said the ban on terminations in cases of rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormality needed “radical reconsideration”.

Earlier this month, the Women and Equalities Committee at Westminster announced an inquiry that will examine whether the Government has a responsibility to reform abortion laws in the region or whether the contentious issue should only be one for devolved ministers to determine.

Next month, a private member’s bill will be tabled at Westminster aiming to remove sections of the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act that make abortion a criminal offence.

Anti-abortion demonstrators outside the High Court in Belfast Credit: Brian Lawless/PA

Ahead of the visit to Belfast, Ms Soubry said: “Women and girls in Northern Ireland are not second-class citizens.

“They deserve access to free, safe and legal abortion services without having to travel to other parts of the UK.

“Our government must prioritise their rights and there is now significant support in Westminster for reform.

“We will continue to push for it to ensure that long and overdue change happens.”

The visit is being hosted by pro-choice advocates Amnesty International UK and the Family Planning Association as part of a series of events with Westminster political parties.

Anti-abortion activists in Northern Ireland are opposed to calls for the UK government to intervene on the issue, insisting the matter should only be determined by locally elected politicians.

Ms Soubry MP added: “It’s ultimately the people of Northern Ireland who are affected by the restrictive abortion law there, which is why we’re in Belfast today, to listen first hand to the women, midwives and doctors who find themselves harmed and compromised by the near-total ban on abortion.”

Mr Merriman said: “Abortion is a healthcare and human rights issue.

“In our United Kingdom, there should be no difference between a woman who lives in Northern Ireland and needs an abortion and a woman who lives in England and needs an abortion.

“Whilst our preference has been that a devolved government addressed this, the fact is Stormont has not sat since January 2017 and Parliament has responsibilities to legislate for, and represent, citizens in every part of the UK where devolution does not apply or operate. Women cannot wait.”

Grainne Teggart from Amnesty International said: “This visit has huge significance for the people of Northern Ireland who have so far been let down by the UK Government’s inaction on abortion law reform.

“Since Ireland voted to change their restrictive law, we’ve heard nothing but silence from the UK Government on whether women and girls in Northern Ireland will be given access to free, safe and legal services in Northern Ireland.

“It is wrong to insist abortion is a matter for a devolved administration.

“It’s clear that Anna Soubry, Huw Merriman, Nicky Morgan and many other MPs across the parties accept this is a matter for Westminster and are taking a stand for the rights of women in Northern Ireland by doing what they can to push Westminster to reform the outdated and discriminatory abortion law.”

On Friday, Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O’Neill, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood, UUP MLA Doug Beattie and Alliance Party leader Naomi Long also issued a joint call for the law in the region to be radically reconsidered.

They stated: “Northern Ireland has been without government since January 2017, we are concerned about the harm being caused to women living under the existing Victorian era legislation which makes abortion illegal in almost every circumstance.

“We agree with the recent ruling of the UK Supreme Court that abortion law in Northern Ireland is in need of radical reconsideration.

“We note that 919 women travelled to England in 2017 for this healthcare service and countless others purchased abortion pills online, in doing so risked prosecution.

“We further note that the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women found that the UK is responsible for ‘grave and systematic’ violations of women’s rights by unduly restricting their access to abortion and recommended the repeal of sections 58 and 59 of the Offences against the Person Act 1861.

“We call on UK Government to decriminalise abortion by repealing sections 58 and 59 of the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act and to ensure a human rights compliant framework governing access to abortion.”